AMONG the many tragic aspects of today's civil and ethnic conflicts is that international conventions designed to protect noncombatants seem totally to be ignored.
The Hague conventions of the early 20th century that established laws of war drew a sharp distinction between military and civilian personnel. Civilian noncombatants were not legitimate targets; they were to be protected, if at all possible. These laws remained recognized, though aerial bombardment made them much more difficult to enforce.
After World War II, when undeclared wars became more common, the international community moved to apply these laws. The Geneva conventions of 1949, supplemented by a protocol of 1977, were designed to apply the Hague conventions "where there is armed conflict between two or more contracting parties, even if a state of war is not recognized."
The protocol on grave breaches of international law included attacks on the civilian population or individual civilians or launching an indiscriminate attack affecting the civilian population.
Fundamental Rules of International Humanitarian Law Applicable in Armed Conflicts, prepared by the International Committee of the Red Cross in 1978, require parties to a conflict to distinguish at all times "between the civilian population and combatants in order to spare the civilian population and property." The rules continue, "neither the civilian population as such nor civilian persons shall be the object of attack. Attacks shall be directed solely against military objectives."
Those waging today's wars are ignorant of or indifferent to these fundamental international principles. Serbs and Muslims fighting in Bosnia turn their guns on the helpless populations of cities and on the UN convoys that would bring them aid. Snipers brag to the press that they have killed an enemy, drawing no distinctions between an adversary with a gun and a woman standing in a bread line.
In Somalia, armed supporters of ruthless warlords steal food and beat off starving peasants. Months of negotiation have been required even to get the insufficient quantity of relief now flowing into the country.
In the confused circumstances of these conflicts, it is difficult, if not impossible, to assess responsibility for individual acts of violence against civilians. The fact remains that the leaders, intense in the pursuit of their narrow objectives, appear to the outside world to be indifferent to the suffering they cause.
In many cases, those responsible lead local factions who recognize no law. But, even in cases such as Yugoslavia, still a recognized nation and presumed signatory to international conventions, the world seems helpless to hold the government accountable for that suffering. A further part of the tragedy is that those who have inflicted the suffering may not, themselves, pay a penalty.
Attempts to assess responsibility for civilian mistreatment may alienate the very leaders who must negotiate the peace. One need only look to Cambodia where, despite the slaughter of millions by the former Pol Pot regime, peace seems possible only if the Khmer Rouge are part of the solution.
Very little save the anger of their own populations will make these leaders responsible for the human disasters they have caused. Pol Pot still lives comfortably somewhere near the Thai border. Once hostilities end, the likelihood is that the leaders, whether in Belgrade or Mogadishu, will still be around and, in the end, will escape any real accounting for the carnage and starvation they have caused.
It would be naive to think that, in the present circumstances, reminders to the combatants of an international agreement to protect civilians would end the tragedies. The possibility exists, however, that, over time, it would place greater opprobrium than now exists on those who remain callously indifferent to the suffering of innocent victims.
The world community is, at great risk and cost, making an effort to alleviate the starvation and deprivation caused by the current wars. If this help is to continue, the participating nations have every right to insist attention be paid to existing rules and agreements and that the time has come to reaffirm more clearly the right of people to stay in their traditional homes, take refuge in sanctuaries, and receive relief without harm.